INT: David Cronenberg
There are cinematic moments that shine in my memory. Many of those moments include works from the brilliant David Cronenberg. I remember the first time I saw THE BROOD, the first time I saw THE FLY and especially NAKED LUNCH. Many of which I have seen several times. As a genre director he goes above and beyond the call of duty by creating thought-provoking and striking images of horror drenched in very real character. And recently, he has made a couple of amazing films that are earning him even more critical success. With A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and his latest, EASTERN PROMISES, he has made two strikingly original and powerful films that continue to prove he is one of the most talented filmmakers today.
I recently got the chance to talk to him one on one about his recent work and his latest leading man, Viggo Mortensen who gives a wonderfully complex performance along side Naomi Watts in EASTERN PROMISES. Not surprisingly, I found David to be a very complex individual himself. He is open and honest about his work and he also happens to be a very nice guy. If you are not familiar with his earlier work or possibly his latest, you are missing out on a very intriguing artist. Seriously, do yourself a favor and go see his latest and possibly check out the uber-creepy THE BROOD. Just to see the road he has traveled in his career. Ladies and gentleman, I give youÖ David Cronenberg.
How did you get involved with a project about the Russian mafia (EASTERN PROMISES)?
Well, the most straight forward kind of way, my agent sent me the script. It had been languishing at BBC Films for awhile and I read it. I really thought the writing was terrific and the story was really intriguing. And the whole question of the Russian mob in London was really quite sensual and complex and fascinating. Because I think whatís happening in Russia these days is really quite interesting, since the fall of Communism. So it had cultural and political and other overtones as well as being a good mobster story. So thatís pretty much how it started.
I know that you worked with the writer and the script. How much did you add or changeÖÖ?
Oh, a lot, a huge amount. It was a first draft and you know, normally a writer doesn't get a chance to start evolving the script until a director is involved because most producers or studios donít really want to be in charge of doing that, they want a director involved so they know that the work is going to be very specific and useful. And so the writer, Steve Knight was very excited to sort of, get another crack at. It was just a first draft as I say. We changed everything, well, we changed a lot, letís say. The ending was different. Some characters were lost and other characters appeared. So it was quite a lot.
How difficult was it shooting in London and working with so many different cultures?
Well, it's allÖ it is difficult but fun. I mean thatís part of the fun of it is to see if you can make that work. And also working with actors from different countries and having them spiel like they come from one country. So we have Viggo [Mortensen], an American. We have Vincent Cassel, a Frenchman. Armin Mueller-Stahl, a German and [Jerzy] Skolimowskyís Polish. And then to get them to all be doing a Russian accent when they all speak English and to have them speak good Russian that will hold up when the filmís shown in Russia. Which it apparently does, it holds up very well. That was quite a challenge. Itís a lot of fun though. It helps when you have brilliant actors, and I was very careful in my casting to make sure that I had actors who had already demonstrated that they had very good fluency with language, that they could do other languages, and do accents. Because you can sometimes have a brilliant actor but heíll do a really horrible accent when he has to do, letís say, an Italian accent, you know. It takes a musical ear. It almost needs the ear of a musician, which for example, Viggo is, to do a proper accent.
But the shooting in London part wasnít difficult, I mean, we had a wonderful crew. And aside from the traffic everybody has to deal with there, it was very smooth sailing. You know, I had shots, three weeks there for my film SPIDER, so it wasnít completely the first time in London.
You mention Viggo, obviously, second time working with him. How did you discover him for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE?
Well Iíd been seeing him for years in many, many movies. And Iíd always thought that he was a very interesting actor. Heís the kind of actor I like, which is to say heís got the presence and the charisma of a leading man. But he has the subtly and the ability to disappear into his role that you get with a good character actor. And I love that combination, I mean I think I found that same with Jeremy Irons and Ralph Fiennes for example. So, heís a real actor, and of course THE LORD OF THE RINGS made him a star soÖ you need of course a certain level of stardom to support a big, relatively big budget, relative to me anyway. So thatís basically it, as I said, I had been seeing him for many, many years in many movies.
What I like about Viggo is that he is fearless and a lot of American actors wonít do the work that he does. He doesnít mind getting down and dirty.
Thatís absolutely true. Of course we talk about the naked fight scene [in EASTERN PROMISES], even more is the sort of the subtly that he will bring. He doesnít feel like he has to chew up the scenery and go over the top in order to get noticed or anything like that. You know, if a characters is really controlled and inward as this character of Nikolai is, Viggoís not afraid to play that, you know. His fearlessness goes in many directions.
Was it interesting to bring him in this time? Because obviously with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, he in essence, played two characters. And with this one, you bring even another dimension with him.
Yeah, what he can do is bring in many, you know, a character whose got many, many layers that you can feel. And even though you donít really get a sense of his background in terms of information delivered in the movie, you ultimatelyÖ heís able to deliver a character that has many, many layers and depths that some of them you glimpse and some of them you donít. But you get a feeling of them being there, which is necessary for you to feel that a character on-screen is real. An actual, complex, well-rounded person, just like you would meet in your own life. Itís actually a very hard thing to do on-screen. Itís much easier to play the sort of, the obvious beats of a character, you know, and just sort of give you the shorthand. But to play the complexity is quite difficult.
I agree. Now, one of the things I find fascinating about your career is how you started off more or less as a horror genre director from which youíve grown a lot. What have you learned throughout the years, starting off with films like RABID and THE BROOD to this?
Well, I never thought of myself as a horror filmmaker you see. Itís true that my first films were sort of horror/sci-fi, and they were genre pictures and that was exactly what I wanted to do. It wasnít as though I calculated that was the best way to get into the film business or anything, but it turns out that it was. But I didnít even know that at the time, it was just, thatís what came out of the typewriter when I started to write those scripts was that. But at the same time I was always very interested in the actors, very interested in subtly of dialogue and complexity. And you can do that within the genre, I mean after all, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES are also genre pictures. You know, they have their conventions that people expect, and then they also expect you, if youíre a good filmmaker to kind of fool them and subvert the genre, sort of go off in a way that they hadnít expected. You donít want to, even if youíre delivering a good horror film, you donít want to be totally predictable or youíll be boring. So I think really that all that Iíve been doing throughout the years is developing my craft, you know, in terms of characters and actors and all the things that you do. The lighting, production design, editing rhythms and all that. So you just hope that youíre getting more mature and better at it rather than going downhill. So, to me itís all just been a very natural evolution. It hasnít been a surprise to me, letís put it that way.
With your recent films achieving such critical success, was there a shift when you saw the way critics looked at your work more respectfully?
I think it was as long ago as THE DEAD ZONE in fact, you know. Because the first films were extreme horror films, SHIVERS, RABID, THE BROOD and VIDEODROME. But THE DEAD ZONE, which was pretty mainstream, I mean, based on a best-selling Stephen King novel. Yeah, itís a genre picture but suddenly I was working with a lot of American actors who were more recognizable, I suppose, to American audiences than actors I had been using earlier, who were mostly British and Canadian. And you could see that the acting was really good and they could see that there was a lot of emotion, you know, and they also were responding to the fact that it wasnít particularly bloody or gory or anything like that. Ironically enough though, a movie that I made has won an Oscar, but it was my most extreme horror movie which is THE FLY you know [Laughing]. We won an Oscar for special effects make-up.
I remember that.
Yeah. But also, as time went on, movies like DEAD RINGERS, I mean people could see that Jeremy Irons was brilliant in that and that also is like, twenty-years ago. So itís been quite awhile that itís been acknowledged that my work with actors was sort of, beyond what you normally expect from genre pictures.
Well, I think, even working with Samantha Eggar [in THE BROOD] and some of the others, you always brought out the best.
Yeah. And Oliver Reed, heís in that movie and he was not an easy actor to work with for a lot of people but he and I got along very well. He was a guy who didnít suffer fools gladly you know, if he felt a director was incompetent, he would give him a really hard time. And we had a great time you know. And it was because we were taking the acting seriously, we werenít just worrying about the effects. Which is of course what would happen with a lot of young directors doing a horror film, heís obsessed with trying to get the effects right and he doesnít pay any attention to the actors. And one thing that actors really donít like is when you donít pay attention to them [Laughing]. And theyíre right.
I agree, it is sometimes a case of lets get the splatter and forget about the development.
Sure, and to that extent too, that thereís not enough attention paid to casting. Making sure that you get really interesting, good actors. Not necessarily stars but ones who will bring something interesting to the role rather than just doing it by the numbers.
You seem to find yourself examining the dark side of human nature often, what attracts you to that place?
Well Iím not only attracted to that but I mean, I am a dramatist you know. As George Bernard Shaw once said, ďconflict is the essence of dramaĒ. You are a dramatist, you are looking for drama, youíre looking for things that will illuminate what human nature is like, what itís like to be a human being at this particular time that youíre practicing your art. And imagine the opposite, imagine youíre making a movie where everybodyís happy and nice and everything is good [Laughing]. Thatís not much of a movie. Itís not much of a play and itís not even much of a poem. So I think itís just natural for dramatists to go for intensity, for unusual aspects of human nature that from which conflict arises because youíre looking for that. To me itís just natural. I mean, Iíím not, as a person, Iím really rather laid back and sweet and upbeatÖ but I do notice those other aspects of human nature, including those in myself. And perhaps because theyíre more hidden, as an artist you want to reveal what is hidden. I think thatís a natural impulse rather than reveal what everybody already knows. Thereís no revelation at all there. So for an artist that would not be very interesting. I mean, even artists who reveal the unusual underpinnings of everyday, mundane life, you can do that too, like Harold Pinter. Even there you get into some darkness.
Well thank you so much David, it was really a pleasure talking to you.
Well thank you, good for me too.
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